Wrtten by Augustine
The “On the Couch” series is compiled by several articles focusing on individual movie characters which are analyzed in terms of psychology, philosophy, literature and art.
TW: Discussion of ASD (Antisocial Personality Disorder)
In this essay I will compare and contrast two of the most notorious villains of all time: Heath Ledger’s Joker in Batman: The Dark Knight (2008, dir. Christopher Nolan) and Javier Bardem’s Anton Chigurh in No Country For Old Men (2007, dir. Coen Brothers). I will discuss their psychological identity and life stance drawing from psychiatry as well as the philosophical/political analyses of nihilism and anarchy.
First of all, since I am going to heavily refer to psychopathy and sociopathy it is important to establish them within psychopathological terms that is, within the context of mental disorder, its causes and manifestations. Psychiatrists do not officially diagnose patients using this binary opposition; they rather categorize such behavior under the umbrella term of antisocial personality disorder since it is believed that psychopaths and sociopaths do share common elements – in different yet various degrees Antisocial personality disorder or ASD becomes apparent during adolescence and it is associated with a disdain for moral values and indifference towards the rights and feelings of other people. Manipulative, long-lasting, persistent and exploitative actions lead (along with symptoms in childhood) towards such a diagnosis. (2)
If we are to roughly distinguish between psychopathy and sociopathy, we could safely assume that people suffering from the first one do not have a conscience, while sociopaths do know right from wrong and even if they feel guilty or remorseful they will still commit unusual, even villainous acts. Furthermore, even if people in both categories lack empathy, psychopaths seem to exhibit a total indifference whatsoever towards other people’s emotions. Nevertheless, they are also too intelligent; mimicking emotions and pretending that they care also distinguish them from sociopaths. Finally, psychopathy is also demonstrated in certain areas of the brain while sociopathy can be the result of someone’s environment pushing them to adopt a certain lifestyle – one that makes them unable to fit in within society.
Before moving on though it is necessary to emphasize the fact that unfortunately, Hollywood reeks with inaccurate and too violent portrayals of mentally ill people – especially of sociopaths and psychopaths. In real life most people diagnosed with ASD are NOT violent; they could even occupy CEO and higher management positions while using their manipulative techniques to climb the social ladder even further.i
A well-known example of a sociopath in the business arena is Christian Bale’s Patrick Bateman in American Psycho, whilst Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock in the titular BBC series is indeed a“high-functioning sociopath”.
Heath Ledger’s Joker is a tricky situation; even if he appears as a psychopath in the movie not only his mental illness seems to basically appeal to the popular, and even romanticized stereotype of being criminally insane, but also the boundaries between psychopathy and sociopathy are blurred. Let us think for a little bit the Joker’s origins as narrated in Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke.
If, being a sociopath, is mainly a condition which has been imposed on people from their surroundings, then Moore’s Joker is a sociopath and not a psychopath. He loved his wife and tried – despite his faulty logic – to provide the best for his family. Only after the accident in the toxic lake, only then did he really get down the road to madness. Only then did he embrace the role of the clown – a mock-heroic figure taking pleasure in manipulating and making fools out of people with his – often – sadistic games.
However, Ledger’s Joker appears to give greater depth and intensity in the classic clown. Yes, he suffers from ASD but even if he claims that he has no plans and he is not a schemer, and despite his illogical fixation on killing Batman, the Joker has more plans than simply making fun out of Bruce Wayne. He is always a step ahead of him, he manages to distort Harvey Dent and manipulate him into becoming some sort of vengeful walking bag of hate and even at the last-minute he proves that people can indeed turn against each other out of instincts of self-interest and self preservation. Yes, he loses but he encompasses an ideology of chaotic anarchy. In particular, he is an anarchist since he rejects every given authority and a chaotic one since he belies and twists any morals by renouncing money and in a greater scale capitalism, by renouncing any sense of good and evil and finally, by terrorizing innocent victims. In his own little world, there is no sense of good and evil – evil is something that every person is inclined to and the Joker acts as the absolute agent of chaos in a city which is fixated on the constant reproduction of the binary opposition between good and bad.
Nevertheless, the fact that the Joker constantly discusses his scars and the memories they evoke, even if he never really gives one version of the story the audience gets a glimpse in his inner world how traumatic such an incident was for him. The story of his father and his wife share one common element: violence. Either domestic violence or violence to oneself. These allegations constitute the reason why we are still torn whether the Joker in Christopher Nolan’s 2008 movie is more of a psychopath or a sociopath. And that is why this portrayal of the Joker (in terms of his mental illness) is considered inaccurate by several viewers and fans of the Batman universe as well as psychiatric communities.
Ledger’s Joker triggers important discussions about the corruption of our society, the degeneration of moral values and the manipulation of the common people by those “schemers” who are actually the ones who spread terror in the streets.
On a completely different note, Anton Chigurh is probably the most accurate portrayal of a psychopath in the history of filming. Lacking any capability of compassion or empathy and with no conscience, Anton is a hitman who uses a coin to decide who lives or dies. His actions are not random and in his mind everything makes sense. In the film he serves as the motif of the “unstoppable evil” which is really common both in the Coen brothers’ movies and in Cormac McCarthy’s fiction on which the film adaptation was based. ii
Anton tries to kill everyone he meets in the movie – or actually almost anyone – and he can be even seen as a figure of the silent Grim Reaper; he is always there, haunting Llewelyn Moss and spreading death along the way. He is obsessed with retrieving the satchel and he will not stop at anything until he does.
Given the fact the Coen brothers are known for their nihilist tendencies in their movies I strongly believe that Anton is the ultimate nihilist antihero as well – for if, Nietzsche’s nihilism shows how the highest values devalue themselves in a false world where the question “Why?” simply finds no answer, then Anton surely is the embodiment of the decadence of our own contemporary society (3).
No matter how different they may seem, no matter their twisted set of values and morals or their endgames, the Joker and Anton constitute two present-day villains serving to reveal the faults of our capitalist and degenerated society – of a carnivorous society aiming solely at swallowing and spitting people, their dreams and values.
i All the medical references in ASD are taken from “Sociopath vs. Psychopath: What’s the difference?”
- “Is the Joker a psychopath or a sociopath?”
- “Antisocial Personality Disorder”
- Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy